Elephant by Gus Van Zant depicts a fictionalized school shooting, based mostly on the Columbine High School massacre.
In keeping with Van Zant’s usual style, most or all of the teen actors are amateurs, so the performances are somewhere between bad acting and the non-acting of real teenagers being themselves. The dialogue is often painfully juvenile and trite, with the gossipy girls seeming the most like a parody, but then again, I think real teenagers pretty much talk like that, so in its way it’s actually pretty realistic.
Again as is typical in a Van Zant film, there are long stylistic sequences that don’t move the plot along but just provide atmosphere and tension. Most often these consist of long, long shots of a student walking down a hallway. There are also many scenes of people doing the most mundane things, like a student changing her shirt.
These long artsy sequences will try the patience of some viewers. I’m kind of on the fence. I did indeed experience a fair amount of the film as dull, but at the same time these elements give an interesting feel to the movie and at times ratchet up the tension. I don’t know that I’m prepared to say they are a positive in this movie, but when the school shooting section finally comes, it’s very emotionally powerful, and I wonder how much of that is attributable to the contrast with the earlier sections following all these students doing their various banal activities.
Indeed, once the shooting starts, the film is quite arresting. That part is handled in a way that pulled me in, really put me face-to-face with something genuinely horrible. And I’m sure it’s also more powerful like that because you know it’s based closely on real events; it’s not like some wholly fictitious slasher movie.
I rather like the fact that there’s no discernible pattern as to who will end up getting killed and who will not. Some of the people we get to know get shot and some don’t. And it’s all seemingly random; it’s not like it’s all the people of one gender who get it, or just the people who somehow bullied or crossed the murderers earlier, or only the most annoying characters, or anything like that. And there’s even one case where a character is introduced as if we’re going to next learn about him, and he’s then shot almost immediately. So it’s not like we get to know roughly the same amount about each of the characters. Anybody could be shot, and it could happen at any time.
The senseless and random nature of it all extends to the motive. Various potential factors are present, but nothing you can really put your finger on to say that this is clearly why they did it.
Which again is like real life. The combination of adolescence and the typical American high school is one of those things like military training that can so warp people as to produce monsters, but predicting which people specifically it’ll be, predicting what form their monstrous behavior will take, and being able to establish a causal chain to explain it all is well beyond our current understanding.
So I think that aspect of the film is actually pretty honest. Some people might be dissatisfied that it’s all left open and unexplained like that, but can we explain a real case like Columbine much better?
Anyway, I thought the movie was mostly effective in setting a portentous mood and presenting the violence in an emotionally powerful way that causes one to think about the relevant analogous real life issues. It is slow at times, and very slow at other times, so I can’t say I was fascinated all the way or loved this movie, but it’s worth seeing.